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Grey Matters, November 16, 2015; Volume 4, Number 11

posted Nov 15, 2015, 11:28 AM by Andrew Shen   [ updated Jun 24, 2016, 5:30 AM by James Marcotte ]

Hi Everyone,

I'd like to share with all of you a number that has taken on special meaning in our household: 8,000.  That number may or may not already be linked to something else in your lives - perhaps the annual cost of something you pay for, or the number of miles you drive your car in a year.  For the Shen family? It's the number of times this week that our daughter has played "Hot Cross Buns" on her recorder, as she practices for her school's 3rd grade music performance. This is our family's second time experiencing the joys of the 3rd grade music curriculum, this time with a child who is much more determined to master this song.  My mother has been a piano teacher for over forty years, and because I spent my childhood listening to her students playing the


same songs over and over again, I've developed a bit of an immunity to the challenges that may come with hearing the same (sometimes wrong) notes being played over and over (and over).  The rest of my family has not developed that same tolerance comfort, and I was somewhat sympathetic when my older son walked up to me late last week and said with a somewhat defeated tone, "Dad, please make it stop."  To Addison's credit, she is taking her assignment seriously, and I feel like we're all doing our best to support her.  Full disclosure, I am considering the fact that Hayden is actually including the word "please" when he begs Addie to stop playing as his version of being supportive.  

Immediately below are some quick reminders for this week. After that, I devote the rest of this week's Grey Matters to describe a new policy regarding homework over vacations and some introductory thoughts on a larger community topic. I'd appreciate it if you took a few moments to read that portion of this newsletter.  

Here's the quick reminders:

  • Bye Bye Birdie tickets are on sale! Performances take place from December 3rd through December 6th.  The cost is $15, and tickets can be purchased at the RJ Grey Main Office, Donelan's, and Red, White & Brew.  A friendly reminder to ABSAF pass holders that your tickets must be picked up at the RJ Grey Main Office.  

  • The Fall Trimester closes next Wednesday, November 25th.  There will likely be end-of-trimester assignments and assessments, so you might want to check in with your child(ren) about what is on their plates between now and the Thanksgiving Break.  

  • The sign-up process for this year's Ski Club continues up to December 4.  If your child is interested in participating, please pick up a registration form at the Main Office and contact Lynne Kondracki ( with any questions.  You can also download the forms from our website by clicking here.

  • 7 Red's annual Coat Drive continues, so if you have any coats (for adults or children), they can be dropped off in our Lobby.  

  • Thanks to those who have already completed the online request form for Parent-Teacher Conferences and communicated with Katy Frey (7th grade) or Anne Spalding (8th grade) with any questions.  If you still wish to schedule a conference, please complete the form, though please know that many of the conference times and days have been filled.

  • Students who plan totry out for our winter sports need to make sure their "Green Form" is completed and reviewed by our school nurse.  Tryouts for many start the Monday we return from Thanksgiving Break.  

  • Still interested in our Washington DC trip in April?  Please remember that the deadline for registrations is November 25 (the last day before Thanksgiving).  Contact Marc Lewis ( if you want to learn more.  


With the Thanksgiving Break a little over a week away, I wanted to share with families some information about homework over the vacation period. Specifically, that there will be none.  At the start of this school year, I shared with the staff that we would be adopting a school policy that homework would not be assigned for any of our extended vacations (Thanksgiving, Winter, February, and April Breaks).  At the heart of this policy is a belief that school vacations can and should provide students and families an opportunity to rest and focus on time with each other, free from any school-related obligations. The commitment we (parents and the school) have to academics will be ever-present, and yet I think we would be remiss if we ignored what psychologist and author Madeline Levine identified as the need for "honoring the importance of downtime, playtime, and family time."  To be sure, I also don't want to suggest that addressing those needs can only take place during vacations (that would be problematic as well).  We hope students and families will see these vacation periods as an additional opportunity to cultivate other parts of their family's life, be it in the form of leisure and social activities, or simply quality time with each other.  Please also encourage everyone to read for pleasure during these vacations!

Truth be told, there was a comfort on my part with establishing this policy because the general practice amongst many teachers at RJ Grey has been to avoid assigning homework during vacations.  Therefore, articulating this expectation more formally has three objectives.  First, it felt important to establish this as a school wide expectation to ensure consistency across the school.  Secondly, there were still a few gray areas on this subject that would benefit from clarification, specifically in regards to situations when long-term projects are assigned/begun before an upcoming vacation but have a due date that lands some time after the vacation. This will sometimes need to happen given the timeline and progression of a particular unit or topic of study in a class.  When this occurs, teachers will not count vacation days as part of the calculation for the appropriate duration of an assignment.  Additionally, any long-term projects assigned before a vacation will not have a due date earlier than the Thursday after we return from a vacation.  

Finally, we formalized our approach to homework over vacations because it felt important to offer an institutional message that could be shared with students, families, and the larger community about what we value, and our commitment to the needs of the whole child. It's worth mentioning that our school's discussion about homework does not start and end at this immediate policy about vacations.  We've begun a longer conversation within our staff about connections between homework and our curriculum, what makes for quality assignments, and the development of common expectations regarding workload (among many other things).  This dialogue has many layers to it, and right now the focus is on having the staff exchange perspectives about homework practices that reflect and support our different goals.  We hope to establish some shared expectations about homework that we might hold for students, for ourselves, and that we'd like to ask of parents and families. There's no question that this conversation will also need to expand to include students and families, and my hope is to develop something for the Spring where we can ask you and the students for some insight into how you've experienced homework at the Junior High.  

For the long term, I see our discussion about homework as one entry point to what should appropriately be a broader conversation about a vision for our schools that extends beyond, but will still include, the academic aspirations we hold for our students.  I know that many of us, parents and educators, often struggle with the intensity of expectations that have often emerged because of the risks we believe might exist if our kids don't pursue what is an increasingly narrow definition of "success".  There is, however, growing evidence that our efforts, though well-intentioned, don't leave nearly enough time to attend to many of the other things we know a child requires for healthy self-development.  The concerns many parents have about how best to navigate a competitive environment will often collide with what we know to be the benefits of letting kids experience and learn from failure.  Our efforts will sometimes run counter to the reality that a healthy developmental course for individuals does not progress in a perfectly straight line. Indeed, mine involved three detours, several mid-course corrections, and one confusing rotary.  I know that Dr. Campbell, principal of the High School, has also recently expressed to parents some similar thoughts on this very issue. She and I both share a strong belief that this is a topic of great importance, and central to our community's ongoing commitment to the health and well-being of our students.  It's also terribly complex and extremely personal for all of us, as it pertains to the hopes and dreams we carry for our children.  As we work with organizations such as the PTSO to develop meaningful opportunities to wrestle with these topics, I hope you will consider participating.  When appropriate, I'll try and include in Grey Matters links to articles and research that I think will contribute to this dialogue.  This is definitely an ambitious goal, but one that I know many within Acton-Boxborough are eager to pursue.  

Have a great week, everyone.